As a young girl growing up in Wenzhou, southern China’s “capital of capitalism,” Sui He (何穗) had a dream: to become a self-made businesswoman.
At 21, she is approaching the top, living in New York and flying around the world. However, instead of becoming a hard-nosed entrepreneur, she is rising through the ranks of an equally cut-throat industry — as one of a new breed of Chinese models strolling the catwalks of London, Milan and New York.
“Editorial look and natural poise all the way,” gushed one fashion blogger; “a delicate air that shifts to hard edge in a blink,” raved another.
Designers are equally enthusiastic: He became the first Asian model ever to open for Ralph Lauren, the high priest of WASP style, at New York fashion week.
However, He points out that she is not alone
“They had six Chinese models in the show — it was just by accident that I was the one who opened it,” she said.
December’s US Vogue featured eight east Asian models — Chinese, South Korean and Japanese — in an “Asia Major” shoot. Liu Wen (劉雯) was the first Asian model to appear in a Victoria’s Secret show and became Estee Lauder’s first Asian “spokesmodel” last year; Maybelline has hired another Chinese model, Shu Pei (秦舒裴). Feifei Sun (孫菲菲), Emma Pei (裴蓓) and Ming Xi (奚夢瑤) have all walked for top designers. Lest the boys feel left out, Louis Vuitton recently hired Taiwanese-Canadian Godfrey Gao (高以翔) for a moody advertising campaign.
“In the last couple of seasons you have seen a sudden increase,” said Angelica Cheung (張宇), editor of Vogue China. “Even in the last two or three years it was pretty much about Du Juan (杜鵑): She was the only one going big. Now they have all appeared.”
Sui confesses that when she was growing up she thought of models as “flower vases” — a Chinese idiom indicating beauty but emptiness. Yet these days others are making bold claims for the significance of these new faces; the US Vogue spread announced that the models were “redefining traditional concepts of beauty” (traditional, that is, in the West).
Liu has declared of her compatriots: “We are making history every day.”
A handful of models of Asian origin have been celebrated in the West before, such as Tina Chow. More recently, Du became the first Asian model on the cover of French Vogue and has walked for Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent.
Yet New York magazine described Sui He’s Ralph Lauren appearance as “the most surprising casting of the season,” saying more about the persistent whiteness of the fashion industry than about its new-found diversity.
Cheung is proud to say that Vogue China played a part in the rise of Chinese models by flying in big-name international photographers for fashion spreads.
“We pretty much launched [Du Juan’s] career by having Patrick Demarchelier shoot her,” she said.
She concedes there is another reason why Chinese models are in fashion: money.
“Because of the economic problems elsewhere, China became the only shining spot. As a consumer market it has grown and grown,” she said.
Consultancy firm Bain & Co reported recently that China would this year become the world’s second-largest luxury-goods market, with 25 percent growth taking it to US$17 billion in sales. McKinsey predicts that by 2015 it will be worth US$27 billion.
Louis Vuitton’s decision to hire Gao was not only testament to his razor-like cheekbones, but to the increasing clout of Chinese luxury consumers, more than half of whom are male. Similarly, Estee Lauder’s decision to hire Liu is less surprising given China’s multibillion-dollar skincare and cosmetics industry. This gives some encouragement to those who hope east Asian models will continue to be used, despite the industry’s history of showing a fleeting interest in, say, larger models or black women.